States, Societies and the Expanding International: Fred Halliday's Rethinking International Relations

March 19, 1996 for Professor Neufeld (PO420: IR Theory)

by Howard Fienberg

The realist conception of international relations, with its focus on states as equal unitary actors in the world system, has been the prevalent paradigm for the study of the discipline. Fred Halliday, in Rethinking International Relations, attempts to surpass the realist tradition, with an approach combining elements of idealism and Marxism. In order to better understand Halliday's ideas, one must explore three points: (1) his concept of homogeneity, and the inclusion of both state and society in international relations; (2) the dynamics of revolutions and inter-systemic conflict; (3) the relevance and uniqueness of his work.


Dan Reiter's article, "Exploding the Powder Keg Myth," makes for an interesting start to the discussion of homogeneity. Reiter begins by presenting three empirical cases often cited as being preemptive wars: the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, World War I, and the Chinese Intervention in the Korean War. He goes on to explain why such wars almost never happen. The two main reasons are the political costs of attacking first, and that peaceful resolution is facilitated by the fear of preemption.

What makes this piece relevant to the wider discussion is the implications of the findings he makes, not the findings themselves. The political costs of preemptive war, as Reiter views them, are in relation to great power patrons or great power adversaries. Israel is seen to have delayed preemptive war so as to gain the support of her most important patron, the US. Germany was keen not to pre-empt Russia in WWI in order to keep the UK neutral. China had little of these sorts of thoughts since it was already an essential pariah in the world system, and was geared towards expanding the `revolution'. In both of the first two cases, the great powers being wooed or satiated represent more than themselves, they represented the world order, the homogeneous international system. When Israel felt itself a pariah, it usually was not. The pariah makes for an exception to the homogeneity, but that is better handled in the next section.

So, what Reiter determines to be the political costs of preemptive war could seemingly fit into Halliday's homogeneity model. Those costs are part of the norms and conventions that Halliday sees as shaping international society. This `ius cogens', the concept that there are norms which are simply generally accepted in the international system, is seen not only here, but in the prohibitions on the use of force in international disputes, and in jus in bello.

As a norm, aggression is frowned upon internationally and force is rarely sanctioned as a means of resolving conflict. It is not simply the displeasure of one or more states with another state's aggressive behavior which constrains that state from launching a preemptive war. It is a norm which, starting with the assumption that war is essentially wrong, says that starting a war (being the `aggressor') is wrong, too. As a result, states go to great lengths to avoid being accused of playing this role. Entering a war against the norm ``might mean winning the war militarily, but losing the victory politically.'' (Reiter 17)

Israel, in the Six-Day war, was reluctant to enter into formal hostilities despite all of Egypt's provocations. The most crucial of these provocations was the closing of the Straits of Tiran, Israel's sea link to the Indian Ocean. Israel had made clear publicly for decades that such action would be a casus belli. By not immediately responding, Israel was risking losing its reputation. More importantly, it ruined the credibility of its deterrent.

The credibility of one's deterrent is an important point to be focused on because of the ideology behind it. International norms work against the practice of deterrence, and in favor of either pacificity or just war. When states refuse to play the game of deterrence, and utilize other methods of interaction, deterrence is rendered an impotent ideology. Norms and conventions replace what might have otherwise been an anarchic system.

Waltz postulated that anarchy was the ordering principle of the international system, and that its logic was self-help. This attitude of self-reliance has been breached in most cases of interaction. Cooperation can be seen in most cases of international affairs, and most often not out of sheer self-interest.

Another main breach of realist tradition is in terms of the history of the international system. Waltz declares the international to be the realm of `recurrence and repetition,' a timeless and unchanging scheme. He does not question how it came about, assuming it to be an arrangement of infinity. Halliday disputes this point, saying that international society varies over time. Homogeneity is not static, but adaptive and apt to change over time, even as it remains the natural state of international affairs.

Reiter's second point, the fear of preemption, is wholeheartedly realist, but cannot be discarded. Just because one does not accept the realist world view does not mean one can ignore the self-help rationale which often predominates in spite of the homogeneity. What Reiter's argument does show however is that the spiral model is known to most states and in a majority of conflicts, state leaders have behaved in a manner designed to limit the spiral in crises: ``each side is careful to avoid provoking the other.'' (Reiter 29) Reiter's conclusion is that the spiral model is useless as a model of the real international world, but still useful as a guideline for leaders as to how not to behave. Thus, fear of preemption not only encourages restraint, it also encourages the acceptance of homogeneity.


Israel provides an important case again when discussing inter-systemic conflict in international society. Halliday stresses the various socialist revolutions of the twentieth century, and how they shaped the bipolar Cold war world; he pays less attention to other revolutions. Israel is interesting for reasons of its sheerly revolutionary nature. It was the first state proclaimed as Jewish. This not only differentiated it from the mass of the Christian-dominated nation-states, but set it on a course of post-modernity. Despite the secularism espoused by many of the Zionists, the state was founded on religion, and for some time its statesmen guided their policy by religious morality. Not only that, but it inspired support across the world, primarily from Jewish communities. This set segments of society apart from mere allegiance to their state. Citizens attached developed allegiance with either another state, or with the seemingly universal principles it upheld or represented.

This movement away from secularism, and the cosmopolitanist ideal, was a revolutionary one. Israel entered inter-systemic conflict with its primary enemy, the Arab/Islamic World, to the similar extent as the US-USSR battle. Both the conflict between the ideologies of communism and capitalist democracy, and the battle between Islam and Judaism, surpassed the borders of states. The dynamics of the latter were slightly different, but the results were the same.

In response to the creation of Israel, Arab states attacked the new state. What had been occurring on a domestic level in Palestine under both Turkish and British trusteeship was then expanded to an international level. As Halliday notes, war and revolution are intricately connected, and it was the Arab states' failure to destroy Israel in 1948 which led to another revolution, the Arab one. The development of pan-Arabism, beyond mere rhetorical ploys, rapidly advanced across the Arab world. It fostered not only a hatred of Israel, which was the threat to Arab hegemony in the region, but to the West in general. This included the Communist East, which was tolerated only in so far as it could help the Arab cause. Old regimes were overthrown, and a new leadership arose: Nasser in Egypt; the Baathists in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria; Qaddafi in Libya.

So, the revolution in Israel fueled an opposing one in the Arab world, both rejecting many of the universalist claims of modernity. The Israeli revolution indirectly contributed as well to the mayhem in neighboring Lebanon. This was because of the emigration from Israel of many Palestinian Arabs, who took up permanent residence in camps on the Israeli border. Instability was the result, not only due to the consummate border fighting between Palestinians and Israelis, but due to the tipping of the delicate balance of power in Lebanon. In the 1970's, following an attempt to overthrow the regime in Jordan, the PLO and many Palestinians were ejected and fled to Lebanon as well. This addition of even more Palestinians, and the forces of the PLO, to the tenuously balanced Christian-Muslim mix in Lebanon soon led to a brutal civil war. This made it the site for proxy warfare between Israel and the Arab countries, as both intervened in the fighting and aided various forces. Syria was the winner of that war, and Israel suffered a humiliating defeat.

The revolution in the Arab world bounced back to cause further change in Israel. Israel, though still essentially a pariah state, became increasingly Western. The evolution of a state which was more or less Western changed the dynamics for Israel internationally, and it came to be more accepted. It conformed to the homogeneity of the Western world, a part of the inter-systemic conflict with the Communist bloc.

Returning to the big picture, one notes that Halliday has a particular stance on the issue. He says that the inter-systemic conflict happens because there cannot be two different organizing principles internationally, and one must fall in the end. (`This town ain't big enough for the both of us, pilgrim.') Homogeneity is presented as the natural state of affairs, and must be returned to; heterogeneity cannot last. Halliday insists that the West triumphed in the Cold War because their ideology won over the citizens of the Communist bloc, and at face value this is essentially true.

Halliday does miss more important conclusions from his analysis. This will be shown through the Israeli-Arab conflict. There are serious limitations on winning the conflict. Israel found this out without winning, when it reclaimed the Gaza strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights in the Six Day War. The inhabitants of these regions did not give up their ideology, and bore it out in the face of Israeli hegemony. Military force was also shown incapable of getting victory for either side. Arab attacks never destroyed Israel, nor could Israel hope to conquer or destroy the Arab countries. What then is left when no winner can be ascertained? The answer is homogeneity, yet in a different sense than Halliday concludes.

Halliday insists that the homogeneity that was reached was Western, but it was not. There was no clear division between winner and loser in the cold war as in other wars. When people like Fukuyama may proclaim that the West won outright, and that liberal democracy reigns supreme again, they are being narrow-minded. Halliday admits that liberal democracy is ``inherently unstable, and liable to self-destruction,'' (231) but fails to acknowledge how it has changed and adapted. Western liberal democracy was not a constant ideology, but an ideology evolving over time. It was challenged by the inter-systemic conflict, and adapted accordingly. Crass free-marketism spawned social democracy, and the continuous waging of conflict caused domestic upheaval which could not be crushed and had to be co-opted. from this point of view, the Vietnam war was not a true loss for the US, in the sense that it was a win for an expanded democracy at home. This would eventually change the Western ideology internationally.

Relevance to the Arab-Israeli conflict is abundant. One has already seen how the conflict has changed both sides over time. the most recent change is the homogenizing one, that of peace. Claims to hegemony on both sides have been dealt a serious blow. What remains is a desire for peace and cooperation. In a sense this better fits the model of heterogeneity, since both sides are accepting that each other are different. However, this is not so significant when compared to the general collapse of the hegemonic ideologies of both sides. The only solution is cooperation, to find a new common principle, to work within homogeneity.

This reflects back on the East-West conflict. It was not merely a win for Western hegemony because the moves towards peace and change on the Communist side spurred similar style moves at the grassroots in the West. While the elites in the West attempted to continue the conflict, and take advantage of the signs of weakness in their opponent, the masses expressed their allegiance to a greater homogeneity, that of peace and cooperation. Ideology was something of lesser importance, and the Western elites had no choice but to respond.

War and conflict can be cause both revolution and repression, and either one has the capacity for good or evil. The McCarthy era, which set back democracy in the US, was a reaction to the Cold War. The Vietnam war furthered the expansion of democracy in the US, and was also a reaction to the cold war. In concluding this section, there is a strong relationship between revolutions and inter-systemic conflict on the one hand, and change in ideology and homogeneity on the other.


Halliday's work is of great importance, not as a purely new concept, but as a reformulation of older and more outdated ones. Halliday is hunting for a new synthesis. He rejects Waltz's argument that states are unitary actors, without rejecting their preeminence in world affairs. Non-state actors and transnational forces are given their due by Halliday, but he is not so universalist as to proclaim states have no place. He merely expands the scope, to add societies, and the interaction between state and society.

Once this is done, what can be termed international is much more broad than has been traditionally asserted. It is within this synthesis that Halliday has reached something seemingly new. With a theory encompassing more than just states, the international as a discipline is expanded. Once one refuses to accept the separation of domestic and foreign affairs, the discipline of comparative politics surely falls mostly under IR, becoming more of a sub-discipline. Halliday's embrace of sociology is also a part of this, and further breaks down the barriers between the social sciences.

Halliday quotes Caleb Saleeby saying that:

The history of nations is determined not on the battlefield but in the nursery... The politics of the future will be domestics. (150)

One can understand this beyond its historical context of national control of women, it becomes a serious statement of the modern world's future. Feminism proclaimed that `the personal is political,' accepting not only individualism, but the relevance in politics of gender. Where the 'personal' (i.e. the home) was once seen as autonomous, feminism is concerned with opening all realms. Halliday recognizes the role gender can play in the international. This includes not only a feminist critique of power and gender roles, but of international policy and process, as well as women's contributions to the international. Halliday views the integration of feminist theory into the international as a means to further shifting attention away from simply ``inter-state behavior'' towards ``how societies and states interact.'' (167)

Not unlike Chris Brown, Halliday addresses ethics and the normative. He does not emphasize them much in his own work, but does give them their due. As well, their theories seem complimentary. Homogeneity is in some sense normative.

Halliday also takes a real stance through the issues he has presented. Despite his seemingly neo-Marxist approach to state and society issues, and his more idealist approach to the international, he has in fact come up with a synthesis which is new and important. Even where he comes up short in his analysis, Halliday makes a vibrant contribution to the international debate.


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